Kapka Kassabova is a colleague of mine, though there’s no reason why she should know it. We both work at the University of Strathclyde, she in English and me in Education. However, when Jordanhill dies its sorry death in July 2012 and we all troop down to the main campus in the city centre, perhaps our paths will cross: I hope so, because I’d like to learn to write half as beautifully as she does.
I have just started reading her memoir “Twelve Minutes of Love”, a gloriously sensual account of her ten year love affair with the Argentine tango (“the only tango”, she writes). It’s a stunning read, full of esoteric detail of the dance’s history, its music, its steps, its etiquette. More than that, though, it is a subtle but nevertheless forensically honest account of her soul. In throwaway lines, she hints at the uncomfortable “longing” which permeates her life as well as the ethos of the dance: “Our faces were very suddenly close,” she writes, “which was a bit disturbing, but not as disturbing as the sudden closeness of our bodies. I could feel his body heat. It had been some time since I’d last felt the heat of a man’s body.”
She speaks a great deal of this intimacy which is at the same time fulfilling and disturbing, joyous and sad. It’s an intimacy that has its own climax, the “tangasm” of total abandonment and oneness that two partners experience when they achieve that ineffable euphoria of “clarity of mind and crispness of step in the declining afternoon of San Telmo.”
I have brought my sister along as a birthday outing. She is addicted to dancing, there is no other word for it. In the last decade or so, she seems to have been brought to a new life through the tango, ballroom, jive (of so many kinds), salsa, Lindy Hop (the sound of which always makes me smile), LeRoc. She recognises much of what Kassabova talks about: of the “virtual nation” that is tango dancing; of living a life based around where and when the next dance is; of the all-consuming need to find a partner, any partner, for that twelve minutes of love. What she doesn’t comprehend, though, is Kassabova’s revelation that she doesn’t dance much any more; like an addict, she had to go cold turkey. That suggests the book will have a lot to reveal about tango’s emotional cost.
Jeff and Sari of the Dance House give a tango demonstration which is, of course, smooth and sensuous and playful and beautiful. What strikes me is the intricacy of the wordless conversation that is obviously going on because of the way in which she seems to know exactly what he wants her to do at any given moment. The steps, the leans, the drags are all executed with an apparent effortlessness that can only come though a level of communication through weight and balance and inclination and the slightest of pressures that seems like telepathy.
A thought occurs to me. Kassabova is very sweet and charming. She listens to people intently, smiling and nodding, and, unlike many authors, makes sure she answers the questions asked of her in the way the questioner demands, not the way she wants; she is more than happy to respond to someone else’s agenda rather than impose her own. It’s impossible not to warm to her.
I wonder if this is a product of tango, of having to read partners so intently, of being serially compliant on the dance floor? Does tango make you a good listener, or do you need to be a good listener to appreciate tango?
Jeff and Sari make me gasp and smile and laugh; my sister, for the umpteenth time, asks me if I fancy learning to dance for myself. No. I am not a dancer. I have a body built for the clumsy scrum of ceilidhs. My sister is the dancer. I write. Kassabova can do both.
More than that, though, is that the beauty of the dance is something I want to admire, and that beauty is not going to be heightened by me stumbling and fumbling my way to some sort of proficiency. I love Portuguese fado, which, like Tango, has been pompously declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity; but the beauty of the fado is not going to be radically changed by my learning Portuguese or, God forbid, by my taking singing lessons. So let Jeff and Sari and Kapka and my sister get on with it, and I’ll admire from afar.
But Kassabova’s honesty also has me thinking that perhaps the reality is that I have problems with intimacy, I like my space to be private (very West of Scotland); Kassabova notes absolutely truly that in the West we connect with each others’ bodies through sex, nothing else. Perhaps, deep down, the reality is that I see the dance not as an abandonment but as a terrible responsibility to that fleeting partner whose body heat excites and disturbs us.
Perhaps I’m just a bloke with issues.
Colm Tóibín is asked about three questions by Sarah Mansfield and a couple by members of the audience: there’s no need for more, because he’s such a brilliant raconteur and dizzyingly erudite philosopher, he only needs a sniff at a topic before he whirls off into a huge peroration on tonight’s subject, families. He is here to read from his new book “New Ways to Kill Your Mother”, a compendium of scandalous tales of the families of famous writers. In the case of Thomas Mann, they don’t get much more scandalous.
But that’s just the taster for Tóibín’s thoughts on the whole kit and caboodle of relatives. He has interesting ideas about the way in which mothers are excised from the novels of the 18th and 19th centuries in favour of aunts to allow female characters like Emma Woodhouse and Fanny Price to actualize and grow; he speculates on sibling rivalries like the Mann and James brothers (that’s Henry and William, not Frank and Jesse); he muses on Beckett’s easy love for his father and furiously difficult love for his mother; he reckons he’s discovered the source of Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World”; and he reveals that Sinéad O’Connor has a lovely relationship with her novelist brother Joseph and all her family is lovely and her memoirs will be lovely too.
He is an easy, charming, polished conversationalist, the kind of person you could listen to over a few pints of Guinness for several hours, by which time you’d be semi-comatose and he would still be sparking brightly.
Day 2 of the Write Now conference is devoted to panel discussions and research papers. The first I attend is on Fact, Fiction and History, with three historical novelists talking about the process of writing. All – especially Sally O’Reilly talking of her research into a re-imagining of the “Shakespeare legend” – are really interesting. I do, however, have a little bit of a problem with this form of reflection on the methods of writing, not because it is not useful but because it seems to me to perpetuate a monolithic university structure that actually has more to do with a self-referential and self-perpetuating academic culture than it has to do with adding to the sum of human knowledge. More of that later.
My own session goes well: however, with my “little often” approach to stimulating writing of teenagers at school, fellow presenter Maeve Tynan worries that we are in total disagreement, given her “strategic imitation” approach that is based on using the work of “master” writers to hone craft. Of course, we’re not: I’m absolutely in favour of learning from exemplars and models as essential practice in school or university. She describes her own practice, which sounds fantastically stimulating; it’s a far cry from the practice I’m trying to change, whereby school teachers spend two weeks forcing every child in their class to complete a twist-in-the-tail story “for their folio”, and giving them no other opportunities to write creatively for the rest of the year.
The Scottish Writers Centre also announces itself. It’s a relatively new venture driven forward by lovely people like Gerry Loose and Ron Butlin. They are absolutely passionate about providing a non-academic forum for writers and it is, I think, much needed.
A lot of activity now revolves around university creative writing courses: magazines are springing up as undergraduate projects to provide outlets for students at particular universities to publish their work (Octavius, for example, will, in its own words, “feature a range of prose and poetry written by student writers from colleges and universities across the country”); many of the fine new publishing houses have close links with universities; and live events such as the excellent From Glasgow to Saturn (linked to an online journal) and Words per Minute (along with some other quite dire live projects) arose from university student activity. This, I have to say, makes me worry about access, diversity, inclusion and democracy.
While no-one who works in the university sector has any intention of excluding anyone – I know and respect hugely a great many individual university creative writing teachers, and they all have the very best of motives in everything they do – nevertheless, the structure of universities is essentially hierarchical and elitist. Looking at person specifications for posts in any department, the prime consideration is research. Therefore, to become a university creative writing teacher, you first have to be a researcher, second a creative writer and third a teacher.
I have always suspected that what this does is fuel activity which supports an industry of academic articles, peer refereed journals, conferences and promotion structures leading to professorial chairs based on research “output”. Many researchers I know and respect in the education field blithely talk of “playing the REF game”, and it is a game in which the rules and access to play are made up and controlled by those who are already at the top of the leader board.
Now there is nothing essentially wrong with this: if it is what universities do, it is what universities do. And there will always be a demand for acknowledgement, accreditation or certification by those who learn in that way. But by collaring the market – and let there be no doubt, universities are interested primarily in the bottom line – then those who have no access to universities will be excluded. In addition, courses which become “unviable” or which are deemed not to fit with a university’s strategic plan may find themselves “disinvested” or even closed, and the corresponding infrastructure can be drastically affected; if it can happen to courses in nursing and community education, it can certainly happen to creative writing.
The end of the conference is marked by talks from three big guns in Scottish literature, Alan Bissett, Ewan Morrison and Zoe Strachan. Strachan ably defends the notion of universities being involved in creative writing programmes, and points to her own course which, she says, was populated by a mainly working class cohort (although David Kinloch, at the SWC meeting expresses concerns about the demographic of creative writing courses). However, she also casually admits that publishers and agents like to build relationships with writing departments because they have access to a pool of talent which is already developed, already edited, already vetted. That worries me, because in a world in which publishing opportunities become more and more scarce – Morrison paints the bleakest of pictures of a so-called “democratized” industry – it may soon be the case that a creative writing degree is the minimum qualification to even get into the slush pile.
At events such as this, I am often asked, “And where are you studying creative writing?”, as if a graduate qualification is the only worthwhile mark of a writer. On a couple of occasions, eyes have glazed over and gazes have swept the room for more worthy and interesting contacts when I say I have never studied creative writing at university; on one occasion, someone came back to me and breathlessly said, “Raymond, I didn’t realise you had a BAFTA!”. The first magazine I was ever published in was Rebel Inc.: it wouldn’t have been seen dead in a University department. At that time, there was a vibrant community group culture (magazines like “Cutting Teeth” from the Castlemilk group was another great publication) that I am worried may now wither as a result of swingeing public sector cuts combined with the rapacious acquisition of creative writing activity by universities.
I speak as an academic, and as someone who may in the near future embark on a PhD, not, I hope, because I need a job in the university creative writing sector or because I want to call myself a Doctor, but because I want to have the support to help me develop my writing and my novel: and I am absolutely sure that is why everyone does a PhD. But, as I say, I worry about the culture that is being created, simply because universities are the biggest kid on the block. Only proper government funding for community arts activity in general and writing in particular through organisations like the Scottish Writers’ Centre can prevent what would amount to a privatisation of cultural development.
Had an interesting day at the Write Now! 2012 conference at the Mitchell Library. Run by the University of Strathclyde, this year it became part of the Aye Write! festival.
Thanks to having to deal with problems at work, I missed the opening keynote, but got there in time to hear successful novelist Sara Sheridan talking about narrative drive. She was suitably down to earth, encouraging writers to put away their preciousness and concentrate on the story. I found her advice on storyboarding and auditing particularly useful, running through passages of my own and being depressed about how few pictures I could find in them. Back to the drawing board, it seems. Literally.
Next was a short session from Helen FitzGerald, Sergio Casci and Claire Mundell was a bit short on the specifics of how to adapt prose for screen (and vice versa) but was nonetheless entertaining in rich anecdotes that stressed the need to network and collaborate. Certainly, my best experience as a writer was working with the wonderful Clara Glynn and Carolynne Sinclair Kidd on an adaptation of my short story “The Practicality of Magnolia” just because I got to work with people who had the vision to turn my story into something far more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.
Nicola Morgan, hugely prolific author and all round guru (check out her fantastic blog, Help! I need a Publisher!) offered advice that was pin sharp and refreshingly lacking in any sort of bullshit. She calls herself The Crabbit Old Bat because of her reputation for telling it like it is: thank god someone is prepared to do that. I’d heard much of her advice on submissions to publishers before, but it was good to hear it reiterated so succinctly.
Finally, Christopher Brookmyre was hugely entertaining in conversation with Kapka Kassabova. Brookmyre is also from Barrhead; he’s a million times more famous and successful than me. I don’t mind.
Tomorrow should be interesting, with a range of panels and research presentations. I’ve got a slot at 1.30 on creative writing teaching in secondary schools based on the work I’ve been doing with Education Scotland. I’m looking forward to it.
Nice to to see some pals, including Iain Paton and David Manderson. Iain’s “By the Sword” has recently been published by Wild Wolf Publishing, while David’s “Lost Bodies” was one of my favourite reads of last year.
ps – the photo is from an exhibition in the Mitchell of puppets from the collection of puppeteer John M. Blundall. The characters are from the Mabinogion , which is, he tells me, the Welsh precursor of the Arthurian legend. I love the green face: she is, apparently, a mad queen.
Val McDermid is my favourite crime writer – along with Denise Mina, that is. I don’t need to know the title of her latest book (it’s called “Trick of the Dark”, by the way) – I just need to know there’s a new McDermid out, and I’m off to the bookshop.
She’s a polished guest, covering everything from the influence of the Chalet Schools books (which several people pick up on – what is it about them?) to her early Oxford days to her writing process to being stuck in a perspex box at the airport because her prosthetic knees set off the alarm (providing the basis for her next standalone novel). Funny, witty and effortlessly charming.
Cynthia Rogerson, Ronald Frame and Carl Macdougall discuss the short story in the graveyard slot, hosted by Adrian Searle. It’s an interesting discussion, and the old chestnut of short stories being unpublishable comes up again. As Searle points out, new media may well breathe new life into the form, though my feeling is it has never really gone away, especially in Scotland.
It’s nice to see Carl again, for three reasons. First, his novel “The Casanova Papers” is one of my favourite books, a beautifully written and utterly humane love story. Every time I see him, I promise myself I’ll go back and read it again, but re-reading has never been my style.
Secondly, he is a wonderful reader. So many writers irritate me with their lack of preparation for readings to a public they want to buy their books. Nerves are fine, we can forgive them; but writers who can’t be bothered to print out their work with the page throws sorted so that they don’t have to stop in mid sentence to turn the page deserve a good finger wagging. Carl paces his work fantastically, varying his intonation and lulling the listener into his world with that seductive accent of his.
Thirdly, he was kind enough to write a reference for me to the Arts Council which helped me get a big award in 2010. I reckon I owe him a pint at least. Or dinner.
Nice too to bump into Gerrie Fellows, who was the hugely supportive Writer in Residence when I began attending the Paisley Writers’ Group in the early 90’s. She’s just a lovely person, and her book “The Powerlines” contains some of my favourite poetry of the last 20 years. It’s gorgeous.
Oh well, it’s late, so I’m off to bed with my new, signed Val. No doubt I’ll still be awake at 2am…
An interesting panel discussion this, chaired by Alan Riach. For decades, those involved in Scottish writing have been concerned about the lack of status accorded to Scottish literature and – even more so – the Scots language in schools.
There are, however, too many blind alleys in the debate. Should Scots literature be compulsory? Well, doubts were raised about how pupils would engage with being made to do something they didn’t want to, everyone forgetting, of course, that school is, by its very nature, compulsory. So how do we ensure that pupils do engage with Scottish literature? The fact is, they do (around half of Higher answers are on Scottish texts), but the range is very limited because teachers tend to self prescribe.
Put simply, every curriculum document says that teachers of English should study Scottish literature. Having compulsory exam questions will simply encourage them to study a narrow range of texts which will satisfy the rubric of that exam, a sterile experience if ever there was one. The key to ensuring real engagement with Scottish literature is to ensure that teachers do their job, and include quality Scottish literature experiences in their planning and in their teaching. That will mean head teachers, principal teachers and inspectors playing a much more active role in ensuring staff are able to deliver a curriculum that reflects the importance of the pupils’ own culture.